Hartwood restaurant in Tulum, Mayan Riviera
We spend a month on the Mayan Riviera each winter and, given my interest in food, I am always on the lookout for special places to eat. We have our usual haunts, from the ultra luxurious to the local and quaint. This year I heard about Hartwood from a Bon Appetite article a while back and drove down to Tulum to explore and try it out.
The Hartwood website advised that they are open for dinner only, served between 6-9 pm. No reservations. We arrived at 5:45 after being quite sure that we have missed the restaurant sign along the road. The restaurant is located on the Tulum beach road, at the 7.6 km marker (not like there is a real marker there). Driving from the highway towards the beach turn right at the T and follow the road for quite a while. Hartwood is situated on the jungle side on your right, directly in front of the Hotel Parayso. A small wooden sign hanging from a tree near the gate lets you know you have arrived at your destination.
At 5:45 there was already a line up at the restaurant’s gate. I temporarily suspended my rule of never lining up for anything and joined the crowd. The place looked promising. It is an outdoor dining restaurant, with a few of the tables set under one palapa (kind of) and another palapa covering the bar. Everything was lit by candlelights. Looking in through the gate the place seemed humming with activity. Staff putting finishing touches on the tables and lighting candles, cooks in the kitchen stirring, chopping and slicing. Wood burning fire in the open air kitchen promised good flavours coming up. Boxes with produce arranged in front of the open-air kitchen indicated that the food would have a local flare. The presence of Mayan women in the kitchen predicted authenticity of flavours. The owners, a young couple with a baby, were busy, he in the kitchen and she greeting guests they seemed to know in the lineup.
At 6:00 pm sharp a bell rang in the restaurant announcing the kitchen is ready and the staff opened the gates, welcoming the increasingly lengthening waiting line of guests into the restaurant. We were led to a table with wooden benches on each side for seating, hurricane lamp providing the single source of light.
A drink menu, handwritten with chalk on a tall wooden board was passed by staff from table to table, taking drinks orders. I ordered a grapefruit mojito that arrived soon after. It was made with freshly squeezed juice of local grapefruits and was fragrant with mint leaves, served over ice. I love mojitos and this one was exceptionally good. I sipped it slowly while observing the scene and keeping an eye on the kitchen activities.
From there things seemed to move pretty quickly. While we were still having our drinks we noticed others already being served their main course. Perhaps the long lineup of waiting guests meant more than one sitting was required, or perhaps food cooked on an open fire waits for no one. We did not feel rushed at all but it seemed that some of the tables were turned around rather quickly.
The dinner menu arrived at our table in the same manner as the drinks menu, handwritten on a wooden board with chalk. The server leaned it against a post beside us and set a small torch of sorts in front of it to provide light so we can read it. It was quaint and charming. We were left to contemplate the selection for a few minutes. The menu, according to the website, changes daily. The owner travels to Valladolid, an old Colonial town a couple of hours away, to buy food supplies, and the menu reflects what’s local and fresh. This evening it featured four salads and about five entrees. Now came the torture. Everything sounded so good and I wanted to try everything. The salads especially. What shall I choose? Jicama With chili- lime vinaigrette? Roasted beets with goat cheese? Lentils with peaches, cucumbers, queso fresco and pepitas? Thankfully there were a few of us so we could order different salads and I could sample more than one. I picked the lentil salad for myself and it was memorable. The lentils were cook to perfection and provided a perfect base to the melody of flavours and textures in this lovely culinary creation. The menu did not list the ingredients and it was too dark at the table to see the food clearly so I had to snap a few shots of the salad at various stages to make sure I knew what was in it. Peeled cucumber crescents, seeds scooped out, chopped ripe tomatoes, beets (maybe?), peaches (didn’t know they had those in Mexico) and roasted pepitas were definitely in there. The cheese was sprinkled on top in a white mound. Next time I am brining a flashlight. The jicama salad was also outstanding. Sliced, rather than cut into the usual matchsticks, it was tossed with a dressing that I think had lime, chili and local spices in it. The beet salad consisted of beets cut into small squares tossed in a dressing, mixed with some leaves and topped with a piece of grilled goat cheese. It also had rave reviews from my dining companions who, while not quite qualify as “foodies”, are used to pretty good quality food. The salad course was definitely a success.
For the main course the offering was pork, baked for hours, which we did not order. You could choose a lobster at market price or a whole grilled fish, served with head and tail intact. There were also ribs on the menu. The handwritten menu only named the main ingredient without providing details of how the dish was prepared or what was to be served alongside. We asked the server a couple of questions about the menu but more or less went with the flow and ordered based on the owner’s reputation for excellent food. Out of the five or so entrees our entire table picked the grilled whole fish so I selected the grilled prawns just to try something else. The grilled fish was a memorable taste experience. Soft and flavourful inside, crisp on the outside, complex and savoury, it was an exercise in balance of textures and flavours. The side veggies included whole young carrots, spinach and cooked whole radishes, bursting with moisture and flavour. A subtle orange undertone permeated the dish that could have come from a squeeze of an orange wedge, grilled alongside the fish and present on the plate. For my dinner the prawns were large, served with the shell but not inside the shell, with yucca root, cooked and mashed, alongside. The prawns were spicy, the yucca mildly sweet. The flavours, although good, were somewhat monotonous and there were no vegetables in this dish to add variety of flavours and textures, let alone color. I quite happily swiped a few prawns with my dinner companions for a bit of fish and some vegetables. Dessert was offered shortly thereafter, without a menu. They prepare only one dessert per evening, so it was take it or leave it. We ordered it of course and were not disappointed. An upsidedown pineapple cake with caramelized pineapple on top of a soft and chewy angel food type cake drizzled with what seemed like local honey. Servings were large and could easily be shared, although I don’t really like to share and prefer to order my own.
Overall it was an exquisite food experience and we will certainly go back, maybe even tonight. Next time I would be tempted to take a flash light along to see the food better, and would make a point of asking the server a bit more about the menu so I know what to expect. I am also curious about the idea of the menu that changes daily. A quick review of a Trip Advisor commentary shows people mentioning the same selection of lentil or jicama salads, grilled fish with orange or cooked pork at other times of the year. I guess it would be better to say that some items change daily. I wonder what’s new on the menu tonight.